Novak Djokovic limps to quarter-finals after longest French Open match of career

Defending champion defeated Francisco Cerundolo in another five-setter that was over four hours

As yet another unforced error from Novak Djokovic forced him down a break in the fourth set of his tense, gripping tussle with Francisco Cerúndolo, the world number one stared down the very real prospect of his earliest defeat at Roland Garros in 15 years. He was limping, struggling and unforced errors streamed from his racket from all areas of the court as his Argentine opponent seemed to laser forehand winners at will.

But nobody knows how to navigate his way out of a grim deficit and to victory like Djokovic. Despite trailing by two sets to one in consecutive rounds, Djokovic found a way through, defeating Cerúndolo 6-1, 5-7, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 to return to the quarter-finals of the French Open.

A day and a half after Djokovic closed off his third-round win against Lorenzo Musetti at 3.07am, the latest finish at this tournament in its 133-year history, Djokovic returned to the scene of the French Open scheduling committee’s crimes for his fourth-round match. His prior experience initially seemed to unburden the Serb. He was resolute in his service games and he struck the ball with total freedom as he rolled through the first set without issue.

But the drama soon began. Djokovic began to feel pain in his knee early in the second set. He twice called out the trainer to treat his knee at the changeover and also criticised the court, instructing the court maintenance workers to sweep it again. “I screwed up my knee,” he said at one point. “I’m slipping and sliding all the time.” After keeping hold of his serve up to that point, Djokovic finally crumbled at 5-6, producing an error-strewn service game to give up the set.


While Djokovic floundered, Cerúndolo was excellent. Despite his slight build, Cerúndolo possesses some of the most vicious groundstrokes in the game, particularly his heavy topspin forehand, which cuts through all conditions with supreme pace and spin. He put the Serb under unabating pressure, constantly rushing him with pace and searching for opportunities to unload on his forehand while keeping Djokovic honest with a consistent helping of drop shots.

The two consecutive games Djokovic conceded at the end of the second set quickly became five as Cerúndolo established a 3-0 lead. As he kept on firing forehands and Djokovic struggled to find his return of serve, Cerúndolo held on to his serve for the set before breaking and establishing a 4-2 lead in the fourth set.

No matter how beaten Djokovic may appear, the lesson from his past 13 years of dominance is that he will almost always find a second wind. As Djokovic began to connect with his return of serve, to find length and consistent depth, for the first time all afternoon, the Argentine felt the true pressure of a world No 1. Djokovic broke back for 4-4, calling on the crowd to guide him through. Faced with a break point at 5-5, Djokovic dragged himself through the service game and forced a fourth set.

To his credit, even as he trailed a break in the fourth set, Cerúndolo fought desperately until the end. He dragged himself back on level terms and he made the Serb’s life hell. But Djokovic has been in these positions so many times before and it normally ends one way. After spending over nine hours on court in the last two matches alone and barely holding on, the defending champion kept himself alive.

Meanwhile, Alex de Minaur broke through to reach his second grand slam quarter-final at the most unlikely venue, defeating Daniil Medvedev 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 to record by far his best result at Roland Garros. De Minaur had never previously passed the second round at the French Open and his only previous grand slam quarter-final came at the US Open in 2020. Medvedev, the fifth seed, is De Minaur’s first ever top-five scalp at a grand slam.

After the match, De Minaur thanked a fan, Paul, in a joint interview with France TV Sport. After his third round win, De Minaur had asked the internet to find the vocal young fan, and he was able to invite Paul back as he clinched one of the biggest wins of his career. - Guardian